Planes, Trains, or Automobiles? 

Why can’t we just get on board with Amtrak?

In recent years, Amtrak’s funding is always on the line. Last week, it looked like Congress would fund Amtrak at only about 45 percent of its current level, a move that would have effectively punched the beleaguered rail line’s ticket. But a later vote by the full House restored funding to $1.17 billion.

This constant back and forth motion might be charming while riding the rails, but it has got to be making Amtrak administrators a little queasy.

One summer morning three years ago, I found myself standing on the platform at Central Station. It was still dark and travelers leaned against the poles, sipping coffee and watching the train come into the station. I didn’t know what to expect, either from the city of New Orleans or on “The City of New Orleans,” the train that runs from Chicago to the Crescent City.

Like many Americans, I had never taken the train. And to be frank, if I had made the travel arrangements myself, I still wouldn’t have. When there are cars or planes, why take the train?

But I would do it again in a second. Unlike a plane, where you’re virtually trapped in your assigned seat, on the train you can wander around as you please. We had lunch in the dining car, played some cards in the café car (you can’t not), and spent some time in the swivel chairs of the Sightseer Lounge, watching the scenery out the window and a movie on screens above.

Unlike a road trip, we didn’t have to worry about road construction or making sure we were going the right way.

And — good news and bad news — the train wasn’t very crowded.

A friend of mine once said that Memphians don’t understand how to live downtown; that we don’t understand how to get out of our cars. (We obviously don’t understand how to get our kids out of them either, but that’s another story altogether.)

But I think Amtrak has been a victim of that attitude, as well. Somewhere along the line, trains fell out of favor and dropped off the cultural radar. On Expedia.com, for instance, you can search for flights, hotels, cars, and cruises, but not trains.

(Maybe Amtrak should put together a party train with live music and drinks. The marketing slogan could be something like “Chugga, chugga.” Just a thought.)

So, why not just shut Amtrak down altogether? I guess, in addition to liking train trips, I like having a back-up plan if something happens to our other modes of transportation.

In its 2005 report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s infrastructure a D, estimating that $1.6 trillion would be needed to improve and repair it over the next five years. The report, which also gave our highway system a D, estimated that poor road conditions cost the nation about $54 billion a year and that U.S. motorists spend roughly 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic. (No word on how much of that time is spent on Bill Morris Parkway or I-55.)

I get it that Americans love our cars. But since highway travel is increasing at a faster rate than our highways’ capacity — and gas prices don’t appear to be getting any lower — it’s always nice to have another travel option.

And with last week’s vote, we still do. 

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